St. Andrews, Scotland—Earlier today, I took one last walk through the cold, damp, medieval streets of this remote university town, taking in the splendors of this magical place. And upon my return to the old Victorian-style Russell Hotel overlooking the bay, I bade farewell to Annette Kirk, widow of Russell Kirk, the famed author of the 1953 classic, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot.
She was here, all the way over from Michigan, along with members of her family and a coterie of American and European friends, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of her late husband’s seminal work. The book was essentially Kirk’s doctoral dissertation written while at the University of St. Andrews, the only American (as far as I know) ever to have completed a Doctor of Letters degree here; so it seemed entirely appropriate to commemorate its publication here.
Dr. Kirk was arguably the most important “architects” or “theorists” of the nascent, self-conscious conservative movement of the 1950s. It’s likely he would have eschewed such descriptors, since what he argued about so eloquently was the negation of ideology and the affirmation of a broader, fuller, and more humane vision of the world. That’s in part why the publication of The Conservative Mind by Henry Regnery in 1953 was such a momentous—and, as many would realize a few years later—a historic event. With it, Dr. Kirk gave body to an intellectual tradition that previously had none; he gave coherent expression to a collection of inclinations, dispositions, and impulses that had never formally sought it. And, in practical terms, he managed to give the growing coalition of classical liberals, anti-Communists, and traditionalists the intellectual roots around which they might coalesce, making them aware of a broad inheritance which had remained inchoate for decades, if not centuries. Kirk’s was essentially an act of articulation, preservation, restoration.
I had not seen Mrs. Kirk in about a decade. Thus, I was thrilled to find her unchanged, her warmth and energy as infectious as ever. Since Dr. Kirk’s death in 1994 (he would have turned 95 years old on Saturday the 19th), Mrs. Kirk has managed to preserve her husband’s literary legacy with her charm and dynamism, and the support of friends near and far. This past weekend was a celebration of this legacy. And this morning, amid the cold dampness of the Scottish dawn, the three-day commemoration of the publication of Dr. Kirk’s most important work came to a close.
The weekend’s events began Friday evening, with friends and family, and scholars associated with the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, gathering for a private lecture by André Gushurst-Moore, currently Director of Pastoral Care at Downside School and author of the new The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk (Angelico Press, 2013). He spoke beautifully about Dr. Kirk, putting him in the context of a long tradition of humane letters.
On Saturday morning, in the grand old Parliament Hall along South Street, in the main room lined with old paintings of men of renown, Dr. George H. Nash, historian of the American conservative intellectual movement, and the Right Honourable David Willetts, UK Minister of State for Universities and Sciences, gave eloquent presentations on the importance of The Conservative Mind. They were joined by Michael Bentley, professor of political and intellectual history at the University of St. Andrews. They each spoke affectionately, with obvious admiration, of the many lessons learned from the “wandering seer of Mecosta”.
And on Saturday evening, to complement the morning presentations, Professor Owen Dudley Edwards, reader in Commonwealth and American history at the University of Edinburgh, gave a dramatic presentation, full of verve and brio, on Augustan Age figures, T.S. Eliot, and the place of Russell Kirk in this Christian Humanist tradition.
They were magnificent speakers, and each offered sensitive interpretations of Dr. Kirk’s work, displaying impressive mastery of Kirk’s works. More importantly, however, the fellowship that took place in between these talks made this celebration of Dr. Kirk’s work (and life) precisely the kind of event of which he would have approved: Warmth, gaiety, and joy were manifest throughout the weekend, brought together under the wonderful, energetic, and “encompassing love” that has long typified Annette Kirk and her family.
So, as I packed my bags this morning, I thought back to those early years when, as an undergraduate, I traveled to Mecosta to attend student seminars with Dr. Kirk at his home. Those were heady, magical times, when I listened in rapt attention to his lectures, read care-free late into the night, and spent hours dreaming about how I, too, might be able to contribute to acts of preservation and restoration. But Providence brings many unexpected surprises and many of those youthful dreams have not come to pass; but I have never for once forgotten the lessons learned during those short sojourns at Piety Hill.
This weekend’s celebrations then, which brought together so many people whose lives were touched by the Kirks, and who knew, admired, and loved Dr. Kirk, were for me tangible reminders of exactly why Dr. Kirk and his family are so important in my own life. For if there is one thing that has always imbued and animated Dr. Kirk’s thought it is a belief in a transcendent moral order; and if there is one thing he strove constantly to remind us of it was to not despair, no matter how bad things might look, and to remain hopeful. In an early column written for a mid-western newspaper, Dr. Kirk reminded us that although we are all unworthy, “sometimes we are suffused by a high happiness” and that “the battleground of life is glorious despite the hewing and hacking we have sustained.”
We would do well to remember this.